Panama



July 10 - Crossing Golfo de Uraba

Cienaga de Cholon is a protected lagoon just 20 miles from Cartagena. We used SSCA waypoints to poke our way in, though added a dogleg at the entrance to avoid an unmapped shoal that stretched from the right (west) side. Dave spent an hour under the boat cleaning the prop. The Cienaga is party central for Cartagenians, with palapa bars, music, jetskis, kayaks. Several men came by to offer lobsters - 2 large for 100K COP, about $50, yikes! We passed.

After our afternoon respite, we squeaked back out of Cienaga de Cholon just before sunset into almost 30 knots on the nose, crossing shoals 6 feet under our keel. Soon we rounded the Rosarios and settled into a better angle, though with nasty beam seas. We were either too lazy or smart to raise the main in the dark, and are motor sailing with the staysail. 25 miles to the south is a gigantic squall, chock full of lightning, multiple flashes every second. We stuck the spare nav computer and the toys into the oven for a false sense of security. The gribs promised an easy sail in light winds!


July 11- Hollandes Cayes, San Blas Islands

We are anchor down at Hollandes Cayes, in the San Blas Islands after a tough passage. During the night the squalls were accompanied by crackling lightning and torrential rain. Early this morning I decided to bail on our planned landfall at Cocos Banderos, not liking the poor visibility and the entry shoals that might have breaking seas. Instead we carried on to Hollandes, where we had a helpful track from another boat. The "swimming pool" anchorage was full, a surprise to us in this rainy season, so we are just outside, anchored in 30' with good protection, at 9*35.165N 078 40.856 W.

On the way in we passed a single-handed catamaran in distress. After setting our hook, we tossed the dinghy over and went back out to help. Dave worked several hours with another volunteer, bringing the cat's anchor up link by link, while I circled nearby in the dinghy in breaking seas. The single-hander's anchor and chain, not secured, had jumped off the gypsy underway, dumping several hundred feet. His windless, with the wrong size gypsy for the chain, couldn't raise it up. With a pair of chainhooks and some long line (brought by us), the two men spelled each other on a winch, and could finally raise the anchor. Whew! Now we can relax!

Hollandes is a special milestone for us. In 1990 we were here on Moulin Rouge, on our eastabout trip, so by some definitions we have completed a circumnavigation, having crossed our own track. Though in 2 separate boats, on 2 voyages, some 23 years apart, we are not sure it counts. Joel's 12th birthday was here at Hollandes.

The clouds are raising and we can now see the palm islands all around and the higher Darien Mountains of the mainland. Beautiful.


July 12 - Paradise found

What a difference a day makes! Last night we dinghied around the corner to meet Douglas and Gerry on Orion, and Omar and Jeff of Un Mundo, for champagne and barbequed octopus, to celebrate the rescue of the catamaran and our circumnavigation. Fun evening, terrific people, wish we were headed the same direction!

We came home and ate massaman curry, then slept like stones! Today we woke to blue skies, light breeze, water lightly lapping on the bow, palm islets fringed all around us, simply gorgeous. Fantastic change from yesterday's squally misery. Joel always said cruising was a life of extremes, the good parts are really good, and the bad parts are really bad. This is the good part. We're looking forward to mola and lobster barter, snorkeling, and some kick-back relaxation time.

Baraka is anchor down at Hollandes Cayes.

Aboard I have a single child's mola, from our visit here 23 years ago.

A dozen boats are anchored in "the swimming pool."

Small coconut islets invite exploration.


July 13 - Lobster heaven at Coco Banderos

For yesterday's post-passage breakfast, I lit the oven to bake a dutch-baby pancake, forgetting that the computer was in there, hiding from our lightning storms. Noticed it about the time the oven hit 150 degrees! Still seems to boot up ok. Thank you, Dell!

Snorkeling on the reef next to the boat during the day, we found a nice sea biscuit and spotted 2 lobsters in their holes, but left them alone. Last night Orion called on the radio. Lunch could be had at Coco Banderos, 9 miles away if we sailed over. This morning we raised anchor and motored in calm, discovering that the Bauhaus chart for Coco Banderas was far more accurate than either CMAP or Navionics, which showed our track crossing reefs. We worked in and found a good spot at 9 30.6848 N 078 37.0703 W. A Kuna man came by and offered to fetch lobsters at $5 each so we ordered some, then went ashore with Orion and Un Mundo for lunch, which also turned out to be lobster, yum. Been a long time since we've had this delicacy. I swam home to the boat from Tiadup Cay. Dave remembered how to clean our 5 lobster, but lost the last one overboard! Fun day in another gorgeous setting. We are swimming distance to 4 palm tree islets, each only a few feet above sea level.


July 15 - a little trouble in paradise

This morning Un Mundo and Orion set sail for Cartegena. Sad to see them go, we had great fun with them.

Dave thought the engine might be "making oil". Usual cause is a fuel pump leak, so he swapped out the fuel pump for the spare. We raised anchor and threaded our way through the reefs to open water, where the engine died! No obvious quick fix, so we laced the dinghy to the aft quarter and used the dinghy outboard to power slowly back into the anchorage, where Dave is putting the other one back in. This is the second time we've used the dinghy to move the boat. Works great - the big boat does the steering so long as we are moving, with water flow past the rudder. We were able to precisely follow our own track back inside the reefs to the anchorage. Dave tied a line to the outboard kill switch, and could climb back aboard when I had to go forward. Then he could kill the outboard when I dropped the hook. Good practice!

Our local Kuna man sold us a hand of bananas ($3), and 5 more lobsters ($20 plus some old rope). A couple cute Kuna ladies came by, sat in the cockpit sipping lemonade, and showed their molas. I bought one of an octopus, with bird beaks at the end of 6 legs, who had eaten a crab. The ladies are tiny, a foot shorter than me, and wear strings of beads bound tightly around lower arms and calves. The beads are a long continuous string, but cannily form a pattern as each loop aligns to the next. I'll try to get a photo, but the Kunas are not fond of having their photos taken.

Life has changed very little for the Kunas over the centuries. The fierce Kuna (and their reef-fringed islands) managed to keep the Europeans and other raiders out. In 1925 they had a revolt, killing off the Panamanian police and mixed breed children. The US intervened and kept Panama from a bloody retaliation, and in 1938 Kuna Yala was granted effective independence, though geographically part of Panama. As part of the treaty no foreigner may sleep ashore. The Kuna don't own land, so there is no economic class strata, though every coconut tree does belong to someone. Tomorrow we will head to Salardup, to visit Sidra (Ciedras) village near the mainland, a traditional village we last visited in 1990.

Mola of an octopus eating a crab.

Our lunch is fresh lobster.

Our private isle lies a few hundred feet away.

Rush hour in Kuna Yala.

These Kuna ladies will paddle home to their village.

Dave remembers how to clean a squealing lobster.

Baraka is anchored at Coco Banderas.

This large dugout has been retired.

The ladies spot a new customer.


July 16 - Ciedras village

This morning, with the engine fixed, we motored 12 easy miles to Salardup Cay. Once we were settled in, we hopped in the dinghy for the 4-mile trip to Ciedras. Actually, we visited 3 separate Kuna villages. On the first island, Nusa Tupu, we were guided around by a man who met our dinghy. He took us from house to house where we looked at and bought molas, including several fine ones from albino Belisario Morris. A cayuca at the landing sold us 2 more lobsters, fresh and squealing. We motored next door to Ciedras (Sidra on our charts) and were again met at the landing by a volunteer guide, who took us to buy fresh Kuna bread rolls, 10 cents each, showed us dugout canoes being made, took us to the school, made sure we paid our fees ($4 and $2) to the 2 villages, and showed us the Mamartupu congreso (meeting house) and the chicha hut. Chicha is a mildly intoxicating drink made from sugar cane, imbibed at special occasions. Every where we saw the happiest kids playing. At a tiny store, really a home with a window counter, that sold limes and peppers, I bought a bracelet of beads, which the seller carefully wound around my wrist. The Kuna ladies wear these patterned bead strings on arms and legs. Our guide also took us to meet Lisa, a famous transvestite master mola maker. I bought 4 very fine molas from her. I think I have one from her that I bought in 1990.

We dinghied home, and enjoyed lobster thermidor and kuna bread in the cockpit for dinner.

We last visited Ciedras village in 1990. There are changes, generators for electicity, TV antennas, a cement school building, cell phones, but toilets are still thatched longdrop booths over the water, pigs live in cane and thatch corrals, most homes are thatch and reeds. There are no vehicles here, or room for them.

Ladies still wear the traditional mola blouses, and continue to make a good income from selling these artwork panels to the tourists. The mola blouse has 2 panels of reverse applique on layered cotton. The front and back are identical or similar. Traditional colors are red, orange, black, though any color may be used. Some are geometric mazes or reverse swastikas, though many have animal themes, birds, fish, butterflies. The work I bought today rivals the quality and variety I bought 23 years ago.

It is fantastic to us that the Kunas still live so well and so simply, only 100 miles from a major city. There are no roads this far into the Darien. In fact, this area is the single break in the Pan-American highway that stretches the length of the Americas.

Belisario Morris is a master mola maker.

He sells me a terrific crab mola...

...and this papaya one...

...which has to be removed from a blouse.

Dugouts are parked down every alley.

Typical Ciedras home is made of thatch and reed.

More shopping. Too many choices!

I settle on a traditional design.

Vendor sells us 2 more lobsters. He also has an octopus.

Happy kids play in parked dugouts.

Parking lot, Kuna style.

New dugouts are being carved.

Street scene in Ciedras.

I buy a long single strand bead bracelet...

Installed by the shop keeper, wearing her traditional beads.

Fans hang in the Mamartupu congreso, meeting house.

"Mola Lisa" sells me 4 molas.

Lisa lives in Ciedras village and has been making molas since she was 7. She says she is 52 now. I'm not sure, but I think I have one of her signed pieces from 1990. Her work is of the highest quality, and more traditional than many.

Lisa's coral garden mola.

In this one a mystical beast assists in the brewing of chicha.

Sun and moon, an especially fine piece.

And a busy lobster, appropriate Kuna Yala souvenir.

Kunas sail home.

Molas are blouse panels, the sleeves, yoke and skirt are print fabric.

The front and back panels are intricate reverse-applique,

...related in theme and design.


July 17 - Chichime!

This morning I was enjoying mola inventory when a squall hit. We wrestled the windsock down, and watched the anchor chain stretch straight. Dave clocked a 47 knot gust! Should we start the engine? Moments later it started moderating, and a half hour later was calm.

Cloudy day, poor water visibility for eyeball navigation. We decided anyway to mosey on 9 miles to Chichime Cays, a small anchorage that was our entry to the San Blas back in 1990. We thought then that it was crowded with 3 boats, but today there are 14 here, counting us! The islets were unoccupied then, but now have a couple thatched huts. There are breaking reefs just behind us, feels like a tight fit but ok. Fun to be here again. Next to the boat is the tiny single-palm tree desert island where we took a photo with Joel. Nostalgia time. Dave usually doesn't want to return to a place we enjoyed, preferring new horizons, but I think Kuna Yala has been a happy exception.


July 18 - Dave's birthday

Squall during the night. We saw a spotlight in the anchorage behind us when a boat drug, but our anchor held. Today was Dave's birthday, marking another waypoint in life, and a good one. I was making him a dutch baby pancake when Venancio showed up, so I asked him to return in an hour, which he graciously did, then proceeded to unfold in our cockpit a huge inventory of the finest molas I've seen. Venancio is from Mormake, which means "to make molas", also called Isla Maquino. Big dilemma, which to choose. Venancio's molas are works of art, excellent designs, finely made. It was hard to narrow it down to the dozen I could rationalize as in budget, though I spent far more than I'd intended. I like the traditional geometrics, and especially the molas that tell stories of Kuna myths.

Mola-sated, we hopped into the dinghy to explore the small islets that ring Chichime. On one-palm cay is the wreck of a sailboat that mis-timed the reef entrance. On a windward shore in the tideline, Dave found a nice Kuna paddle. Back aboard, a large American-flagged tour boat anchored too close to us, then drug ashore in the evening squall and had to re-anchor, now far enough away. Dinner in the cockpit, lightning on the horizon. Another interesting day.

Venancio displays finely made molas from Mormake.

Trees scored with x's suggest we keep away.

Baraka at Chichime.

One Palm Cay is now One-and-a-half.

Dave checks out the 2 halves of a wrecked sailboat.


July 19 - Isla Linton

Dave woke early today, ran another grib. Weather looks fairly benign to motor-sail 45 miles west to Isla Linton, under overcast skies, light wind on the nose. And time for some molamania mitigation. I have enough!

We pulled the anchor, threaded back through the reef entrance, and set our course to skirt outside the offshore reefs that line this course. Easy trip, with slow NE swells, motor on all the way. We curled around Linton to the sheltered south side and found 55 boats at anchor! Most unattended, many quite derelict. This is where old cruising boats, and maybe old cruisers, come to die. Not far from our anchorage is the mast of a sunken sailboat. Dense jungle all around, we hear monkeys and birds.


July 20 - Portobello

Baraka is anchored in front of the 16th century fort at Portobello. Columbus stopped here on his 4th and final voyage, and Drake lies in a lead casket just offshore. The Spanish build significant fortifications here in an effort to hang on the the gold they'd stolen from the natives, but were in turn overrun by the British and by pirates a few times. It was still wildly lucrative. Between 1574 and 1702, 45 fleets of galleons carried tons of gold and silver to Seville.

Today the ruins and old customs house hint at the glory days, but the town Portobello seems tired, a poor town with heavily barred windows. We walked around, bought a fresh pineapple from the veggie truck for 50 cents, and counted the cannons, still in position pointing into the bay. There are modern pirates here - we were advised to lock up our outboard, worth more than gold.

We anchor below San Fernando fort...

...across from the old town.

Fort Jeronimo crumbles on the waterfront,

reminder of the town in its heyday.


July 21 - San Fernando Fort Battery

Squally night, with lightning and a solid downpour we have not witnessed since the last time we were in Portobello. It is a miracle the canal got built. By late morning it cleared enough for us to row ashore and hike up the 3 levels of San Fernando, a fort built by the Spanish to protect their pillaged gold. The cannons are still in the slots, though the wooden carriages are long gone. A fortified ravine runs from the first level to the second, so the defenders could retreat to higher ground. Last ditch is the 3rd level, a moated blockhouse with arrow slits and thick walls. Moss and frogs are slowly gaining possession, but the fort is still marvelously intact.

Men launch a new dugout.

Moat around San Fernando, first tier.

Baraka in the crosshairs.

Second tier defense.

Third and final tier, top of the hill.

The top blockhouse has a moat...

...and arrow slots but no cannons.

Mossy steps to the guard tower.

Don't bump the support!

A trench connects the first and second tiers for retreat.

Fort detail.

Much still intact.

Guard house.

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